Human Robot Interaction

HRI Osaka Research Center 2010

Paper presented for discussion on Robot interactions in Art, by Ylva Fernaeus and Ulla West

The  Context of Art Exhibitions and Art Performance

It has often been said that the construction of the rooms for exhibitions of art as public environments, beginning with the 19th century salons and museum projects, can be understood as a form of ritual manifestation for the self image of the leading classes. The fine art and its institutions appear as a project of civilisation, which at different levels acts out the profound principles to encourage and foster its citizens as free-thinking and educated members.

This activity not only concerns representation in its basic meaning, i.e. to represent the world in a certain way through the way motives are selected, depicted and displayed, but also to arrange spaces where societal relations are re-created in an almost ideal form. A space where people, to put it shortly, are to learn to behave as good citizens. These rooms are loaded with invisible restrictions, not only between objects and artefacts, but also between the bodies moving between them. And from the perspective of power, the purpose of the spaces where art is displayed can still be seen to domesticate conflicts and inequalities that ultimately could be derived from an uneven distribution of the resources in society. If one looks at the concept of everyday experience as these conflicts as experienced by individual citizens, then I believe that one has found a description of the starting point of West’s artistic practice. It may, as with the Inexorable, concern the brief encounters with the homeless of a city, expressed in the form of a robot that does not pay respect to the codes of conduct that ties together the social web of everyday life, as it is manifested in the spaces of art. It may also refer to the sense of distress experienced when being confronted with one’s own petty consumption, which is the starting point in some artprojects, for example the project Souvenirs, a number of crocheted works made out of plastic bags collected at visits to markets and shops around the world. The work never strive towards a position outside of the events and circumstances, from where one may critizise or pass judgement on them.

The Crafts of Making

You may propose an interpretation based on textile crafts as a methodological approach. Textiles are of course only one of the techniques used in my artistic practise over the years. But perhaps one can understand textile crafts, not only as a set of techniques, but also as a practice whose effects can be generalized and applied in different contexts. My works in various media (photography, motion picture, digital media) can be understood on the basis of a set of practices that relate specifically to textile working models and to the crafts of making.

Weaving, knitting, and crocheting are all time-consuming processes that may be integrated with the performers’ lived experiences in a way that is rare in other forms of artistic expression. They own not only place in mundane sphere of everyday life but also integrated in a natural manner with this lived experience. It is interesting to be reminded that the zeroes and ones that build up the computersystems was a development from the weavingmachines whole – not whole in the systems of innumerous combinations of punsch cards. The textile handicraft technique of weaving was a timeconsuming, repeating process and the startingpoint of computersience.

This gesture takes technology back to the work of the hand, to a semi-conscious, everyday, making. It is possible to describe the work precisely as the result of a process in which one, on the one hand must be sufficiently aware to have control over what one does, but on the other hand, must be sufficiently absent to avoid being bored by the slow progress. The Inexorable is a work of another kind, a collaboration between an artist and technical expertise, but in its foundation this also illustrates an attempt to redefine relationship between art on the one hand, and everyday use and the so-called practical knowledge on the other, a practice that does not necessarily accept a distinction between technology and art as distinct knowledge and experience areas.

Both the Inexorable and the animated filmproject Landescape are obviously dependent on the limitations of modern technology. But determining what cannot be done is not the same as prejudging the outcome, and also works such as the Souvenirs are similarly dependent on an established set of technologies –used, exploited and perverted. Perhaps this demonstrates a kind of enclosed freedom – an absence of power closely connected with a lack of an overall picture, as Michel de Certeau described it – as, at best, lets itself get turned into an advantage and become the basis for a powerlessness resistance?

Such a “tactical” position is close to the approach, in which the distanced position of the critic is replaced by a potentially subversive nearness. Whether using crochet hooks or digital image software, the practice appears to be close to the half-conscious daydreaming, the aimless wandering – even if the overall approach is without doubt conscious and purposeful. This “tactical” approach is different from the attitude of modern art history, which has been about staging art as an ongoing attempt to transcend its own limits.

To re-emphasize the textile work, I perceive this as an everyday practice where art and life tends to run in parallel, without having to set itself against the idea that one must exceed the other. To work with various forms and expressions does in other words not need to be seen as an excess of genre boundaries for its own sake, but rather as a reaction to a situation in which conditions in some sense are dictated from outside and from above. This approach is a way to “keep moving”, and to constitute a space “outside” where there are many different ways to process the forms that determine how we perceive the world. Not to engage in outright opposition by undermining certain forms of exercise of control, but rather by finding a way to process and convey the particulate in the individual experience as it emerges in, and through, the interfaces of technology.

Aspects of Human-Robot Companionship

A piece like the Inexorable does on a symbolic level process experiences and recreate everyday confrontations, without expecting that the piece itself – which at this point is located in a complex web of disagreeing powers – is to articulate any simple answers or statements.

A central question in this work is how everyday life to an increased extent has come to be constrained by technology in different forms. The influence of technology is not necessarily more pervasive in our times than others, but its presence may be more prominent, and more difficult to neglect, also in the understanding of cultural artefacts and practices.

A common view is that technical objects are seen as tools whose function can be traced to specific needs, and whose shape corresponds to the material development of its society.

However, it is difficult to maintain such an instrumental view of things today, as it seems that life itself has come to be increasingly understood based on technology rather than the other way around: Through various forms of life sciences – the mapping of the human genome, cloning, development of artificial intelligence – technology has penetrated the human skin and started to enter the innermost corners of our consciousness. In everyday life, digital technology has come to permeate our existence in even more obvious ways, by transforming the very ways that people organize their lives, how they relate to each other and communicate with others. For a theorist like Friedrich Kittler, the fundamental importance of technology in human life is not something new. He argues that technology never has been restricted to the simple tools that we like to imagine, and that we rather need to understand technology as a way that we organize life as such, as a prerequisite for how we understand ourselves as human beings.

But this does not necessarily reflect a technological dystopia. Rather, the point seems to be an awareness of the fundamental role of technology in our existence, how we cannot imagine human life without in some sense being permeated and determined by the technological apparatus. Perhaps technology can be described as supplementary in the meaning of Derrida – if it at the first glance is interpreted as an add on, as something beside and beyond life, at a closer look it appears as constitutive to human identity and world as such.

Thus, technology could also be described as that which sets the limits of what is possible to say and think at a certain point in time. It is then tempting to make a dystopian interpretation, where man is described as a slave to the interests who control the technology, and thus increasingly life itself. Not by exerting a direct form of control, but by shaping the way people communicate and produce cultural artefacts and how these practices in turn affect how we understand and shape our lives. At the same time a reduction of aesthetics as well as politics into a question of technological knowledge and ownership seems to ignore the human ability to critically process the symbols that are said to exercise such control over our bodies and our minds. Thereby one cannot ignore the problem of a presentation that on the one hand is able to make visible technological importance, but on the other hand ends up close to a deterministic perspective in which society, culture and man himself is described almost as a symptom of a technological situation. Even if you, as Kittler, would describe the technological development as a manifestation of the historical transformations of the war machine, the question remains of how to understand the role of practice in this context.

In other words, what acting space does the technologically deterministic discourse provide, where life is technological in its fundamental constitution? I perceive the artwork as an ongoing project with these questions about the human world of experience and independence within the framework of such a, seemingly ubiquitous, technological state. Rather than to understanding technology as a motivator, or a theme, I perceive artwork as a set of actions performed in the light of an understanding the inevitable part of technology in life.